A Lament for Female Rock Musicians, Absent from Mainstream Radio

Photo of Chrissie Hynde from amazon.ca

In my book and this blog I talk a lot about male dominance in children’s television and films. On Labour Day weekend, I came face-to-face with another source of gender imbalance when, on a 3-hour drive, my husband and I decided to listen to the radio instead of plugging in the iPod.

As an aside, I should note that we rarely listen to commercial radio. I have little patience for the often sophomoric antics of the DJs, limited playlists, and generally awful music. When we do listen, we opt for “rock” stations, since neither of us is particularly keen on Top 40 hits. Given my lack of exposure to radio, what I heard, or rather, what I didn’t hear, was particularly surprising.

After listening to the local rock station for at least an hour, it struck me that I had heard no female singers. I started writing down the performers, just to see if I was imagining things. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sheepdogs, Nirvana, The Tragically Hip, Queens of the Stone Age, U2, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Offspring…You get the idea. Not a female voice among them.

I have since looked into the playlists of this particular station to see if, perhaps, I just hit a bad stretch. That appears not to be the case. Over the three days I examined, that station played just seven songs by female artists. On September 6 and 7, only one song by a female appeared in each 24-hour cycle. Monday of that week, the Labour Day holiday, seems to have been a bit of anomaly, having had five songs by females in 24 hours, but three of them were the same song, What You Want by the band Evanescence. Actually, the Evanescence song makes up four of the seven songs by females in those three days. Makes me wonder how many female voices will be heard once that track goes out of heavy rotation.

Since this is just one radio station with one format, it is hardly enough evidence to draw hard and fast conclusions about the state of music today but I have to ask, why the imbalance? Why can a station play the Red Hot Chili Peppers nine times (!) in one day, but play a woman’s voice only once? (Actually, given the monopolies in broadcasting, this small sample may be enough. All of the rock stations near here are owned by the same company and have very similar playlists.)

It could be argued that rock stations are just playing to the demands of their listeners, but if female artists are not given airplay, how can demand for their music be generated?

Some people might also claim that there is a drought in female rock artists today. (This is not the case in my opinion. There are lots of good or great female rock acts but they are often relegated to the sidelines as “alternative” artists, like Die Mannequin or Metric.) But new artists make up only a small portion of today’s playlists. If radio stations can play Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and old tracks by R.EM, why can’t they pull a few women out of their archives and give their tunes a spin? Heart? Hole? Joan Jett? Janis Joplin? Chrissie Hynde? Jefferson Airplane?

This bias towards male artists is not news. Magazines like Rolling Stone have long sent the message that the best musicians are male. In its 100 Greatest Artists of All Time list, there is only one female in the top 30, and only eight females on the entire list. Women fare better on the 100 Greatest Singers list, where 23 are included, but they are singers, not artists. Semantics, yes, but the different connotations of those two terms is notable. Singers stand up and perform, but artists create and innovate.

As I said in my book, the lack of female presence in kids’ pop culture gives boys a “biased representation of the social world” that promotes gender inequality while also reinforcing the idea men are leaders and authority figures or, in the case of music, the dominant voices. (Quote from Maya Götz in Girls and Boys and Television:  A few reminders for more gender sensitivity in children’s TV, published by IZI.)

Now, one could argue that rock radio is not “kids’” pop culture. Fair enough. But as a microcosm of our broader popular culture, rock radio demonstrates how females still struggle to be heard. This lack of female voices is an issue near and dear to my heart too, since I remember being a teenager looking for new and interesting female artists in my mainstream radio world. I found some on the lighter side of the spectrum, but it wasn’t until I switched to college radio that I discovered the female rock musicians whose voices I had been craving. Seems things haven’t changed much since I was in school.

There are plenty of talented female rock artists out there and I intend for my sons to hear their voices. For that, I will need to turn off the radio and create my own playlists, a sample of which I’ll include in my next post.

Playlist Sources:

Sept. 5, 2011

Sept. 6, 2011

Sept.. 7, 2011

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